Best in Category - Fashion Design 2023

The Social Studio x Kay Abude x Alpha60

The Social Studio / Kay Abude / Alpha60 / Michelle Phan - Ugly Cute Collective

Merging fashion, art and social good, this collaboration highlights local manufacturing, the politics of productivity and zero waste textile practices.

The Social Studio collaborated with visual artist Kay Abude and Melbourne fashion label Alpha60 to create a capsule collection of garments and accessories featuring Kay's striking artwork and modified Alpha60 silhouettes. Made in Collingwood, production off-cuts were salvaged and turned into limited-edition zero waste bags and hats featuring hand-crocheted straps made by TSS staff member Michelle Phan, of Ugly Cute Collective. Manufactured by The Social Studio's in-house production team, 100% of proceeds from the collaboration support the Studio's work and training initiatives for refugee and migrant creatives.

Design Brief:

This project's aim was to bring an emerging artist from a culturally or linguistically diverse background together with an established fashion label to showcase local manufacturing, art and design, and support The Social Studio's work and training programs for refugee and migrant creatives.

Inherent in this was to find collaborators whose work was enhanced by the other, whose values and practice aligned with The Social Studio's as well as create products with wide market and storytelling appeal.

In the striking artwork of Filipino-Australian artist Kay Abude, which explores the economy of labour and the work of work itself, Alpha60's sleek silhouettes were a natural fit. And as an organisation which ordinarily works with deadstock and donated fabrics, devising a creative solution for the textile waste generated through the project was also essential for The Social Studio.

This project was developed by:

Design Process

This project required considerable technical skill to deliver, so as to maintain the integrity of Kay's artwork and Alpha60's designs. The Alpha60 'Sandy' dress pattern was altered by the Studio's production team to feature a series of external, instead of internal, knife pleats that aligned with millimetre precision to the text of Kay's artwork. Each silk screened panel for the dress was individually cut and the pleats hand sewn and pressed down. High-vis tape and industrial buttons were also added to reference Kay's other job as a stevedore at the docks.

Kay's artwork was extremely large, requiring local screen printer Print Ink to construct two bespoke screens to accommodate it. As each panel for the dress was individually placed, this resulted in large, usable fabric scraps which the TSS production team decided to turn into a limited range of bucket hats and bags. TSS staff member Michelle Phan, through her sustainable fashion practice Ugly Cute Collective, designed a "boxing bag" shaped bag featuring crocheted straps made from jersey off-cuts, attached with carabineers referencing the safety equipment needed in Kay's stevedoring work. Michelle also individually crocheted 60 straps from these off-cuts to attach to the hats.

Design Excellence

The capsule collection exceeded the criteria for good design in a number of ways. It featured:

  • bespoke original artwork
  • functional garments for diverse body types made from breathable cotton shirting and cotton jersey fabric
  • bags and accessories wholly made from production textile "waste"
  • technical design and manufacturing skill, from the locally-screen printed dress panels to the hand pleated and locally-made garments
  • limited units to prevent over-production

This project showcases the power of collaboration and local design excellence. Over the course of a year, The Social Studio, Alpha60 and Kay Abude worked towards an outcome which honoured their respective practices: for Kay, it allowed her thought-provoking art and themes of work and labour to be considered within a fashion system that relies on the very workers and skills she seeks to highlight. For Alpha60, a quintessential Melbourne brand with a strong collaborative DNA, it brought new emerging artists into their orbit and, through Michelle Phan/Ugly Cute Collective's work, it also enabled creative approaches to utilising textile waste while supporting The Social Studio's organisational mission.

In the case of The Social Studio itself, the collaboration created an opportunity to platform the talent to be found in the local garment manufacturing community and provided work and learning opportunities for its staff and student community of refugee and migrant creatives.

Design Innovation

The design of a number of pieces in the collection is unique thanks to Kay's original artwork and the modifications made to Alpha60's 'Sandy' dress to enhance its design details and ensure the message of Kay's work was not lost.

Through the toile and sample-making process, a spontaneous decision to wear the Sandy dress inside-out turned into a unique design decision to invert its pleat structure, with Alpha60's and Kay's approval. The Social Studio's creative and production team measured the varying width of each pleat and Kay modified the bold text of her artwork to accommodate each incremental change. The front panels of each dress was individually hand cut and then each pleat was marked out with meticulous precision to align with Kay's artwork.

The pleats were then individually sewn down and the printed panels attached, alongside high-vis trim and brushed metal buttons referencing Kay's industrial work environment at the docks. In total, each dress took approximately 2.5 hours to complete by many hands (and many more hours in design and development) and were entirely manufactured in Collingwood.

Likewise, the zero-waste bags and hats created by Michelle Phan were a response to the mounting pile of textile scraps generated from production of the dresses and long-sleeved jersey tops. Michelle designed a small bag in the shape of a boxing bag and hand-crocheted straps using the jersey remnants. Her protoype was improved with additional reinforcement by the TSS production team, and each strap took her approximately 1.5 hours to prep and make. The hats also utilised a mix of the shirting and jersey textile scraps and are individually unique: some still have markings leftover from the pleat measuring process. These were intentionally preserved to reinforce the story of handmade craft and local manufacture.

Design Impact

This project is a template for how creative workers and creative enterprises can collaborate to achieve strong social, environmental and artistic outcomes. Alpha60 and Kay Abude's generous support of The Social Studio's mission to create meaningful work and training opportunities for refugee and migrant creatives has resulted in several thousands of dollars raised for these programs, with more to come. This is a significant boost for an organisation primarily reliant on grants and external funding.

It also highlights the talent found in Melbourne's independent arts and fashion scene, where experimental, sustainable and socially-focused work is more often the norm than not. Circular outcomes became creative ones, too, with fabric scraps turned into genderless bags and hats saving an estimated 10 kilograms of textile from landfill.

Circular Design and Sustainability Features

This project was locally made in Collingwood with a determined focus on utilising excess materials and scraps from the production process. TSS staff member Michelle Phan, through her sustainable fashion practice Ugly Cute Collective, was tasked with creating a bag design using the cotton shirting waste and featuring a crocheted strap made from excess cotton jersey.

The TSS production team also created hats from the same fabric. Each bag and hat used approximately half a metre of shirting and jersey fabric, sewn together from oddly-shaped production scraps that would otherwise go to landfill. Jersey also had to be stripped into rag yarn to prepare it for crocheting, elevating the value of a material that would have otherwise been viewed as "waste".

Fashion Design 2023 Finalists